Editor’s Note: This week we bring you an excerpt from ‘Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire’ by Nandini Das. This fascinating book documents the encounter of Britain’s first ambeassador Thomas Roe to the Mughal empire–sent as an emissary of James I in the seventeenth century. Roe’s attempts to establish English influence is an entertaining account of bungled diplomacy and courtly intrigue–exacerbated by Roe’s own personal insecurities. Excerpted with permission from ‘Courting India: England, Mughal India and Origins of Empire’ by Nandini Das, published by Bloomsbury India.
About the lead image: This oil painting depicting Thomas Roe’s audience with Jahangir at the latter’s court in modern day Ajmer was made in 1925 by English painter William Rothenstein. Today, it is featured in St Stephen's Hall at The Palace of Westminster in recognition of the historic significance of this encounter.
Our (English)Man in India
It started with a letter. When Zulfiqar Khan, the Governor of Surat, received the news of Roe’s arrival, he responded civilly enough. A messenger had been sent to the English ships with a welcoming gift of fruits, and the governor’s accompanying letter promised to send thirty horsemen to attend Roe’s formal landing at the port, and offered to secure a house for him if the Company merchants could identify a suitable one. Yet even as a flurry of farewell dinners and exchanges of gifts among the ships’ captains and passengers continued on board the ships, Roe opened up a brisk exchange of letters with Zulfiqar Khan on a point of procedure that looks puzzlingly minor at the outset.
On 23 September he wrote to the governor that while he knew that the customs officials at the port were under orders to ‘search everie thing that came ashoare, even to the pocketts of mens cloathes on their backs’, he expected that rule to be waived for him and his retinue. ‘I, being an ambassador from a mightie king, did expect to have all things appertayninge to my selfe and my followers free by privilege […] and that if any such affront were offered me, I would returne to the ships, untill I had order from the King his master.’
Zulfiqar Khan, a highly experienced Mughal courtier himself, wrote back with polite diplomacy. The customs search was standard procedure, he pointed out, but he would make something of an exception in recognition of Roe’s status. An officer would check and seal the ambassador’s belongings at the waterside before it was all transferred to his house in the city. The customs officer would later visit the house, ‘not in the nature of a search, but only to be able to answere they had seene what [Roe] had landed’. Roe agreed. He would disembark on the 26th ‘in expectation of […] the honorable reception promised by the Governor’.
The morning of the 26th was fair and clear. Peyton thought their ships were ‘all handsomely fitted with their waistclothes [armings], ensigns, flags, pendants and streamers’. The sound of trumpets and ‘48 peeces great ordnance’ discharged from the fleet marked Roe’s departure from the Lion. About eighty men had been sent ahead to form an honour guard on shore. Surrounded by Keeling and the other captains, and the English merchants of Surat, the new ambassador set foot for the first time on Indian soil, welcomed by a volley of shots, and launched immediately into a diplomatic tussle that was going to be the first of many on that very long day.
It does not show Roe – obstinate and combative – in a particularly good light. ‘Upon my landing, the chieefe officers of Suratt with about 30 companions wer sitting under an open tent upon good carpetts,’ Roe recorded. When they did not rise to greet him, he sent word that he would not go any further if they continued to sit, ‘wherupon they all rose, and I entered the tent and went streight up and took my place in the middest of them’. Speeches were delivered by interpreters on both sides and answered, but the mood was tense. What happened next is recorded by all eyewitnesses, from Captain Keeling to the lower ranked mariners, Peyton and Bonner. But it is Roe’s journal which, unsurprisingly, gives us the fullest account.
As Roe got ready to proceed to the town, the Surat officials repeated their demand for a customs search, allowing Roe to launch into a dramatic protest. He declared he was ‘the ambassador of a mightie and free Prince’. For him to submit to ‘so much slavery’ as an ambassador would be a dishonour to his master, since in both ‘Europe and most parts of Asia’ ambassadors were privileged ‘not to be subject to common and barbarous usage’. If the representatives of the Mughal emperor in Surat could not do the same, he would return to the ships and wait for the emperor’s own decision, rather than sacrificing ‘the right and freedome due to the embassador of a Christian king’.
The bemused Mughal officials offered yet another partial concession. They would allow Roe and five others of his choice to go free if he agreed to let the others be subjected to something of a courtesy embrace that was only nominally a search. Roe agreed, but each time the Mughal officers approached Roe’s men, his objections became more theatrical. The first time, when they tried to assure him that their procedures were ‘done in friendship’, he ‘called for a case of pistolls’ and hung them on his saddle, announcing that those were the only friends he trusted in present company…
Finally, the Mughal officers gave up. Light was waning, and it was too late for any further ‘ceremony’. The governor’s brother led the exhausted English group to the house that had been rented for them in the city. None of their luggage had arrived, although the governor did at least manage to get the Customs House to release Roe’s beloved bed – the one he had bought in England with his cash advance from the East India Company – and some other necessities. ‘So I was satisfyed with hope,’ Roe writes in the final sentence of the day’s entry in his journal, ‘and ended a wearisome day.’...
Roe, however, had no time for music, or for the sights of the city. From that first, unsettled night in his lodgings in Surat, his journal is instead full of worry and frustration, as he battled obstacles on all sides. Zulfiqar Khan, the governor, was polite but uncooperative, unimpressed by the English newcomer’s claims of diplomatic exemption and assertions of status. Roe spent the first two days struggling to get the rest of his luggage released from the Customs House…
There was another problem brewing. The Mughals had issued an order that no one in the town could sell anything to the English, under threat of arrest. Some English merchants who had planned to go back to the ships were stopped. No one from the ships was allowed to come into the city. In his journal, Roe blamed it on the governor’s anger at Roe’s refusal to bow to his demands, but that might not have been the full story.
A casual reference by his subsequent chaplain, Edward Terry, suggests another reason. ‘When my Lord Ambassadour at first arrived at Surat,’ Terry later wrote, ‘it so was, that an English Cook he carried with him, the very first day of his coming thither, found a way to an Armenian Christians house, who sold wine in that place, they call Armenian Wine.’
Staggering back home, the cook decided to pick a quarrel on the streets with a passer-by, who turned out to be the governor’s brother. The uninvited heckling and slurred shouting of ‘Now thou Heathen dog’, accompanied by much sword-waving, puzzled the Mughal nobleman. ‘He not understanding his foul language, replied civilly in his own Ca-ca-ta [kya kehta], which signifies, what sayest thou? the Cook answered him with his sword and scabbard, with which he strook at him, but was immediately seized on by his followers, and by them disarm’d and carried to Prison.’’... Roe made no mention of his belligerent drunken cook, which is understandable, given that it reflects well neither on his retinue nor on his own ability to control them.